General Crime

Kiarra Price Pittsburg woman sentenced life in prison for murder of Benjamin Merrill for his iPhone and cash in 2009

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A Pittsburg woman who shot and killed a 22-year-old San Francisco man after robbing him of his iPhone and cash in 2009 will spend the rest of her life in prison, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge ruled today. Kiarra Price, 24, was sentenced during an emotional hearing in a Martinez courtroom this afternoon packed with her relatives and some two-dozen family members of Benjamin Merrill, the young man she was convicted of killing.

Her accomplice and former girlfriend, 24-year-old Teareney Brown, was sentenced during the same hearing today to 14 years and 8 months in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping and second-degree robbery. Merrill, a Washington state native living in San Francisco, had been stood up by a date and was walking through San Francisco’s Mission District around 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2009, when Price and Brown, then 20, pulled up in a car, asked for directions and began chatting with him.

Intoxicated, Merrill accepted their offer to party with them and got into their car, according to police and prosecutors. “Ben saw the good in people — he trusted people,” his mother, Pamela Merrill White, said during a tearful statement at today’s sentencing hearing. “I wish Ben had walked around the corner the other way — he was three blocks away from home when he ran into you,” the victim’s father, Peter Merrill, told the defendants in court today.

But instead of heading back to the home he shared with roommates on Lisbon Street, Merrill ended up in Pittsburg, where Price and Brown stopped to pick up a friend, then-21-year-old Kendra Fells, who brought a gun. A short time later, they all drove to a park near the Pittsburg marina where the women robbed Merrill of his iPhone and pocket cash, according to prosecutors.

For unknown reasons, Price shot Merrill, fatally wounding him, and the three women fled the scene, according to Deputy District Attorney John Cope. Police who found the 22-year-old’s body were unable to identify him for two days, since the suspects made off with his identification and his fingerprints weren’t in any law enforcement database. Peter Merrill got a call at work the next day from his son’s roommate, saying that he’d never returned after his date the night of Nov. 2. “It was so unlike him, I knew something bad had happened,” Merrill recalled in court today.

While the victim’s parents called around trying to find their son, Merrill’s cousin, Frank Merrill, was at a San Mateo County courthouse when he glanced over and saw a police officer had gotten a bulletin on his phone — a photo of Merrill circulated to Bay Area law enforcement agencies in an attempt to identify him. The cousin got in touch with Pittsburg police, who were able to confirm that Merrill was the victim in the Nov. 3 shooting and informed his parents.

In court this afternoon, Merrill’s relatives remembered him as a caring, fun-loving young man who was excited about life. After graduating from Menlo College in Atherton, he moved to San Francisco with college friends and got a job as a waiter at the city’s iconic Buena Vista Café. At the time of his death, he was saving up to get his pilot’s license, his parents said. “But you took all of that way from him in the early hours of Nov. 3, 2009,” the victim’s mother told the defendants.

About a half-dozen of the victim’s relatives remembered Merrill today as well as the devastating effect his death had on both his close-knit family and his friends. Images of the victim throughout his life filled a projector screen on the courtroom wall during a slideshow played before the sentencing was pronounced. Throughout the hearing, Price showed little expression, while Brown at times shook her head, smiled or wiped away tears.

At trial, Price’s attorney, Tracee Clark, argued that her client was not the murderer and that Fells shot and killed Merrill. Fells, now 25, is currently serving a 15-year sentence after testifying against Price in court. Cope, however, argued that there was never any evidence that anyone other than Price fired the gun. Both the prosecutor and judge today also noted that they had yet to see any remorse from the defendants. Both defendants declined to speak in court today. About a dozen of the defendants’ friends and relatives also attended the hearing but did not address the court.

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